Posts Tagged ‘Project Connect’

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Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail

31 May 2018

Graphic: Grace in the city

In a post this past February 28th, we reported on a surprising development coming from Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning process – the “conceptual” proposal of a 21-mile predominantly linear north-south light rail transit (LRT) corridor, running from Tech Ridge in North Austin, through the central heart of the city, to Slaughter Lane, near the Southpark Meadows area, in South Austin. The proposal particularly extolled the merits of a 12-mile-long segment, through the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, from Tech Ridge to downtown.

After over four decades of indecision, missteps, and delay, it seemed like the transit agency (and city leadership) might, amazingly, have turned a corner. Could this actually mean that, at long last, Capital Metro and Austin’s top leadership were prepared to move ahead with a plausible, workable light rail plan – implementing a long-awaited leap forward in urban mobility – for the city’s most important central corridor?

Unfortunately, no. Slightly over a month later, Capital Metro reversed itself, withdrew the LRT proposal, and reverted to the familiar decades-long pattern of indecision, confusion, dithering, and delay that has gripped Austin like a curse.

Instead of an actual, specific project for a new light rail system, with a starter line from Tech Ridge to Republic Square downtown, the proposal had dissolved into the clouds, becoming just another line on a map of “perhaps something, some day”. To explain the retreat, planning was now described as “mode agnostic” – in other words, reverting back to a kind of official daydreaming, without any modes (the things that people would actually ride) identified to define a real-world project.

Almost exactly a month later, Capital Metro’s board made another fateful decision. Whereas mode-specific recommendations from the Project Connect study were scheduled for June, the board delayed that back to late in the fall (or perhaps winter) – far too late to put any kind of actual, mode-specific project (such as the previous LRT proposal) on the November ballot for possible voter approval of bond funding. (At best, this would now delay voter approval of any hypothetical project until the 2020 election cycle.)

A third blow against LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was struck on May 8th, when the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a Capital Metro-sponsored plan (originally submitted Jan. 19th) to overhaul the N. Lamar Blvd.-Airport Blvd.-MetroRail intersection (adjacent to the Crestview MetroRail station) with a design – exclusively focused on accommodating and facilitating motor vehicle traffic, rather than public transport – that would impose enormous obstacles to LRT on North Lamar. Currently, community activists and urban rail advocates are endeavoring to prompt a redesign of this project.

For decade after decade, the Austin community has agonized, writhed, and wailed over its steadily mounting mobility crisis. Hundreds of miles of lanes and roads have been built and rebuilt, and even more vigorous roadbuilding is currently underway. Yet the mobility crisis continues to worsen – for many motorists, driving around the urban area increasingly feels like trying to swim through solidifying mud. Or, alternatively, slogging through a battlefield ….

Repeatedly, the need for light rail has been affirmed. (See «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps».) As we pointed out in a March 2015 post, “For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future.” («Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».)

Capital Metro designated LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989. In 2000, Capital Metro hastily placed LRT on the ballot – but, in a poorly organized election campaign, it was defeated in the overall service area by a tiny margin (although it was approved by Austin voters). In 2014, another LRT plan was presented to Austin voters under the slogan “Rail or Fail” – but, proposed for the ridiculously weak Highland-Riverside corridor, the plan was resoundingly rejected. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

Time and time again, Austin has demonstrated that it’s the national poster child for chronically muddled urban mobility planning. In a January 2015 post, we warned that “Austin – supposedly the most ‘progressive’ city in the ‘reddest’ rightwing state of Texas – has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning ….” («Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».) As our previously-cited March 2015 post went on to observe: “The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning … has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.”

Will Austin, and Capital Metro, ever manage to break out of this pattern of failure? Does hope still spring eternal?

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Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle

1 October 2017

Rendering of rebuilt I-35 at MLK Blvd. with HOT lanes for use by “Super BRT” (shown in purple and yellow). Graphic: TxDOT.

The leadership of Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA, aka Capital Metro) seems to be rolling forward full-throttle to implement a dubiously described “bus rapid transit” (BRT) plan for Interstate Highway 35 pushed by by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to bolster the highway agency’s massive over-$4 billion I-35 upgrade project. This mammoth project was the focus of a March 2016 posting on this website by Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs headlined «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money» (with the secondary headline «Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse»).

As that article warned,

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

During this period, Capital Metro resuscitated Project Connect – its major planning effort ostensibly tasked with evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – to supposedly sift through various corridors, types of service, and alternative transit modes, and develop recommendations for a package of major new “high-capacity transit” investments. The process has been performed nominally with the oversight of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC).

Mysterious new “Super BRT” project appears

For a while the Project Connect study appeared to stay mostly on track, still focused on corridors, and just starting an evaluation of transit modes. But then it seemingly began to take a detour this past summer, when reports began to reveal TxDOT’s sudden interest in obtaining Capital Metro’s commitment to a very specific transit decision: a mysterious new “bus rapid transit” project on I-35, proposed to use High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes planned for the huge reconstruction of the freeway. (See graphic rendering above.) In a June 27th article Austin Monitor reporter Caleb Pritchard noted some details about the BRT plan discussed at a Capital Metro board meeting the previous evening, including TxDOT’s efforts to muscle the transit agency “to fork over $123.5 million to cover the entire cost of the [bus project] transit infrastructure.” At this, reported Pritchard, Capital Metro had “balked”, but was negotiating with TxDOT on a “counter-offer” to “cough up approximately $18 million” toward such a project and to seek other agencies (such as the City of Austin) as partners.

According to the article, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson, revealed that the transit agency had “been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan.”

The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

The initial ridership projects for the proposed route between Tech Ridge Boulevard in North Austin to State Highway 45 in South Austin is between 4,000 to 6,000 trips per day.

At the meeting, Multimodal Community Advisory Committee member Susan Somers (president of the AURA urban issues community group) “raised concerns about moves that appear to make a proposed bus rapid transit system on I-35 a predetermined outcome of the Project Connect process.”

TxDOT’s arm-twisting intensified. Within weeks, the highway agency was insisting that Capital Metro had better speed up and get with the BRT program to contribute its share to the big I-35 rebuild project. Pritchard captured the situation in a subsequent July 13th Austin Monitor report headlined: «TxDOT pressures Capital Metro to act fast on I-35 transit».

As Pritchard’s report elaborated, the BRT plan emerging from the shadows already had quite a bit of detail. TxDOT wanted money to cover the cost of right-of-way “for three bus rapid transit stations to be built in the middle of the highway.”

Those three stations would be near Tech Ridge Center, at Rundberg Lane and at Slaughter Lane. The bus line that would service those stations would operate in new express lanes that TxDOT is planning to add to the freeway. The stations would allow the buses to pull out of the travel lane to allow boarding and deboarding without interrupting traffic flow. The buses would also enter and exit the highway in downtown Austin, perhaps via dedicated transit ramps, and terminate in the south at a park-and-ride off State Highway 45 Southeast.

Capital Metro VP Hemingson had also revealed that the original plan for “BRT” had been even more extensive, but had to be scaled back because of funding limitations.

Hemingson told the board that his team originally proposed to TxDOT a “super bus rapid transit” model that would have included inline stations at 51st Street, Oltorf Street and William Cannon Drive, three roads whose intersections have seen recent infrastructure investments by the state agency.

“It was kind of met with a thud, that idea,” he reported, citing its estimated cost of $400 million, or 10 percent of the roughly $4 billion that TxDOT is planning to spend on the entire I-35 project.

TxDOT’s mounting pressure on Capital Metro was corroborated on July 24th by the Austin American-Statesman. In a news report with the headline «TxDOT: Cap Metro must pay to put buses on future I-35 toll lanes», the paper’s transportation reporter Ben Wear cited the $123 million cost for the “rapid bus stations” and noted that “The agency is pressing Capital Metro for $18 million now to buy land needed for those stations.” However, reported Wear, a “Cap Metro official says the full $123 million cost is beyond its means to pay in the coming years.”

But the benefits of that $123 million investment seemed to be steadily diminishing. An August 11th Austin Monitor news update by Caleb Pritchard aptly titled «TxDOT document reveals limp projections for I-35 bus plan» reported that TxDOT had “projected less than stellar ridership numbers” for the proposed “BRT” service – at most, 3,400 boardings a day. In ridership, that would place the “rapid transit” bus line ninth among the transit agency’s other routes, well behind an assortment of more ordinary and somewhat less spectacular street-based services without heavy investment.

This tends to reflect the major disadvantages of trying to install a viable, higher-quality transit operation within a freeway. Passenger access to and from the stations – especially pedestrian access – is a distinct problem. Transit-oriented development (TOD) – particularly residential development – ranges from poor to actively discouraged. Economic development goals are unfulfilled. Yet, because of the difficulties of construction and the high land values around a freeway or tollway, capital costs are inordinately extremely high.

Yet abruptly, after months of a supposedly impartial, rigorous process of laboriously pursuing data-led solutions … Project Connect and its parent agency Capital Metro were suddenly abandoning that rigorously defined exercise, bypassing the whole process, and embracing a plan for an approximately 20-mile, $123.5-million, 3-station “BRT” line in I-35 that had actually been in Capital Metro’s planning process, albeit at a very low profile, for the past five years.

Curiously, our website (ARN) had already reported hints of such a pre-planned outcome last November. In an article titled «Capital Metro — Back to 1986?» we observed that “Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.” A key basis for our suspicion consisted of reports from longtime Austin-area transportation activist Mike Dahmus, together with “with confirmation from other participants”, making it “clear” that “”some implementation of ‘bus rapid transit’ (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a ‘foregone conclusion’.” ARN had noted that this was a “revival” of a nearly identical but “faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.”

And additional evidence that a “BRT solution” has actually long been slated for implementation (despite an ostensible “study” process) has continued to emerge. A commentary by David Orr in ARN’s posting of Aug. 31st revealed that a Connections 2025 brochure disseminated by Capital Metro listed the I-35 “Super BRT” plan as if it were already approved as a project in line for implementation.

Minneapolis “Orange Line BRT” — a faulty model

Much of Capital Metro’s case for the I-35 “Super BRT’ plan appears to use a somewhat similar HOV-lane nominally “BRT” operation in Minneapolis as a model. Dubbed the Orange Line, the 17-mile express-bus-on-highway project is currently under development for the metro area’s I-35W corridor. However, the Minneapolis Metro Orange Line project is significantly different from what TxDOT and Austin’s Capital Metro and Project Connect are proposing. (Information regarding the Orange Line project has been obtained via discussion with former Metro planner Aaron Isaacs as well as online material from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Metropolitan Council.)

First, it would seem that the status of I-35 in Austin (with almost imperceptible bus service) is nothing remotely like Minneapolis’s 45-year-old, mature, heavily used I-35W transit corridor, with 25 bus routes, 14,000 daily rider-trips, and substantial existing transit investment, proposed for upgrading into the Orange Line (including one in-line station)
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Minneapolis’s I-35W bus transit system dates from the early 1970s, when the administration of President Richard Nixon was encouraging investment in enhanced bus operations as an alternative to planning what it perceived as more expensive rail transit. In Minneapolis, this started with metered freeway ramps (controlling access to the freeway); beginning in 1972, HOV bypasses to the metered ramps were implemented, with more being added over the subsequent years. Metro also implemented bus-only shoulders on portions of I-35W and feeder highways 62 and 77.

Eventually this operation included HOV lanes (opened in 2009) used by buses. One “in-line” bus station is already in operation in the middle of I-35W.


Minneapolis Metro express-bus operation (slated for upgrade to Orange Line) has a single station in median of I-35W. Photo: Metro.


This program never produced ridership and benefit results anything close to what would be expected of a major rapid transit (or light rail) investment – a drawback that became a major factor persuading Minneapolis decisionmakers to proceed with the Hiawatha Avenue light rail transit (LRT) project (now the Blue Line) which opened in 2004. This raises the question whether it is prudent for Austin to follow a similar course of heavy bus transit investment in the I-35 corridor as its major transit option.

Secondly, the Orange Line is not intended to be Minneapolis’s heaviest major transit corridor. That role is already performed by the region’s two LRT routes – the Blue Line with 31,000 daily ridership and the Green Line with 37,000.

Third, in addition to the already-established heavy infrastructure involved in the Orange Line project, it’s relevant to note all the additional infrastructure in terms of surface dedicated lanes that exists and is being expanded with this project. Downtown Minneapolis already has an entire bus mall. This infrastructure is essential to support the heavy volumes of buses the transit agency channels through downtown Minneapolis. (Fortunately, LRT absorbs a huge portion of the total transit volume and handles this more efficiently with trains.) Are the City of Austin and Capital Metro prepared to include this level of downtown infrastructure investment in the project package in addition to the proposed “super BRT” on I-35?

Finally, it’s important to realize that a “BRT” project nearly identical to what Project Connect is now proposing was proposed and rejected in the late 1980s, in favor of LRT on a somewhat parallel route (including Guadalupe-Lamar). The main reason: the high capital cost of inserting this heavy infrastructure into the narrow I-35 freeway corridor. The proposed high volume of buses (with traffic implications for the Core Area) was also a factor in the elimination of this alternative.

Fake “BRT”, “Super” or otherwise

As one takes a broader view of this entire issue, it is legitimate to question whether it is valid to consider buses running in HOV or HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) at all.

One of the key criteria specified for “true” BRT has been having a right-of-way or alignment clearly designated as exclusive for the bus-only operation. The basic argument behind this has been that to emulate rail systems, all of which have a defined trackway that passengers know identifies the rail line (especially surface LRT), the BRT operation must have a correspondingly uniquely identified alignment reserved for its exclusive use. This is important in order to (supposedly) impart a comparable sense to passengers and the general public of the presence of the route and where it goes – i.e., a crucial factor in orienting passengers and the general public to this service. An HOV tollway open to general mixed-use traffic does not provide this characteristic.

Furthermore, the TxDOT/CMTA proposal for I-35 “BRT” would have the “rapid transit” buses leave the freeway entirely to serve most stations off the “highspeed” facility. That certainly would seem to violate the concept of a readily understandable, visually clear “rapid transit” route. Not to mention putting a big dent in travel time.

And some final considerations: With three proposed “inline” stations over about 20 miles, the I-35 “BRT” would have an average station spacing of about 10 miles. What “rapid transit” line in the world has station spacing averaging 10 miles? BART (which has some of the function of a commuter rail as well as rapid transit) has an averaging spacing of about 2.8 miles, and that’s unusually long. The next in line, the Washington Metro, averages 1.4 miles.

Our own conclusion: What’s being promoted as “BRT” – bus-style “rapid transit” – on Austin’s I-35 would be basically just a commuter bus operation, with some added amenities.

LRT makes more sense

There’s a far more attractive, effective, workable, beneficial, and ultimately affordable public transport alternative to the TxDOT-Capital Metro-Project Connect express-bus plan packaged as “Super BRT”. This alternative is LRT – specifically, as ARN proposed in our July 31st article «Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT”» – a 21-mile LRT line paralleling I-35 but serving the center of Austin.

Running from Tech Ridge in the north to Southpark Meadows in the south, mainly via North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress, such a line would offer dozens of stations and immensely greater accessibility, available mobility, attractiveness, ridership, and benefits to the community.


Proposed LRT running in Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors from Tech Ridge to Southpark Meadows, paralleling I-35. Graphic: ARN.


As our July 31st article indicated, the first segment should be a “starter line” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor:

Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. In addition to major activity centers, the corridor serves a variety of dense, established neighborhoods, including the West Campus with the 3rd-highest population density in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs.

An initial 6 or 7 mile LRT starter line from U.S. 183 or Crestview to downtown could serve as the initial spine of an eventual metrowide system, with branches north and south, northwest, northeast, east, southeast, west, and southwest.

This kind of investment in LRT would appear to represent a far greater value for money, with potential for a much higher ROI (return on investment), than even a lower-cost express-bus project such as that proposed by TxDOT and Capital Metro, and it surely deserves a fair and impartial evaluation through the legitimate Project Connect study process. The attempt to ram through a “rush to judgement” for TxDOT’s “Super BRT” plan (evidently aimed in part to obtain Capital Metro’s buy-in for the I-35 mega-project) deserves to be jettisoned.

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Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

Guadalupe-Lamar corridor places at top of Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Has Austin’s public transportation planning and decisionmaking establishment turned a new leaf?

That’s yet to be fully determined. But … if Project Connect – the Capital Metro-sponsored major planning effort in charge of evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – offers any indication … there may be signs of a changed focus.

The original Project Connect earned intense distrust from Austin’s most ardent transit advocates because of its role leading the 2013-2014 High-Capacity Transit study that produced the disastrously flawed $600 million Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal (defeated by voters in November 2014). In contrast, the current planning agency (“Project Connect 2.0”) appears to have actually undergone a makeover in some important respects.

Personnel — A totally new planning team, with completely different personnel from the original Project Connect.

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

Methodology — A focus on actual travel corridors rather than the original Project Connect study’s method of slicing up central Austin into districts and sectors and mislabeling them “corridors” and “subcorridors” … plus analytics that seem more accurate in evaluating and prioritizing corridors for a comprehensive plan.

Public involvement — What seems to be a much more sincere effort than in the past to solicit and engage actual involvement by key members of the community in the nuts and bolts of the planning process.

Included in this outreach have been strong advocates of urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Invited to an April 17th consultory meeting, representatives of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT, sponsor of the Light Rail Now Project and this website) and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) were presented an overview of Project Connect’s planning process and its current status, which appeared to represent a new direction in goals and methodology and a somewhat new approach to public involvement.

Currently Project Connect is completing what it designates as Phase 1 of its overall analysis – concentrating mainly on evaluating and selecting corridors as candidates for possible “high-capacity transit”. Phase 2, according to the agency, about to begin, will focus on selecting modes (i.e., types of “vehicle” systems), identifying funding mechanisms, determining “the best set of solutions”, and recommending Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPAs).

At the April 17th meeting, the attendees were told that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was ranking quite high in the evaluation. They were encouraged to attend a public meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), set for April 26th, where the major results of Phase 1 would be presented.

And indeed, at the April 26th MCAC meeting, Project Connect team members, via a slide presentation led by the project’s Director of Long Range Planning Javier Argüello, revealed the study’s conclusion: Guadalupe-Lamar had emerged as the study’s top-ranked corridor. (At top of this post, see closeup of slide of ranking table.)


Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)


From here, according to the study timetable, the focus will narrow on possible modes (rail modes, buses, others) and comparative costs. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe-Lamar – the center of substantial community interest for decades – will make the final cut.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that an evaluation could be impaired or skewed by false assumptions. For example: Buses in dedicated lanes may rate as a “high-capacity” mode, but they have not shown that they can attract passengers to utilize that capacity at a rate or level comparable to LRT. Also, LRT has shown a much higher propensity to attract adjacent development – particularly transit-oriented development, or TOD – than “high-capacity” bus services such as MetroRapid. And there are other significant performance and operational issues to consider.*

*See:
New light rail projects in study beat BRT
LRT or BRT? It depends on the potential of the corridor

Nevertheless, despite an array of critical differences, study methodologies and planning models frequently treat rail and bus modes as if they’re totally interchangeable in key features such as attracting ridership, accommodating future ridership growth, and stimulating economic development.

So will an adequate, fair, accurate comparison be conducted? Are local public transport planners actually starting to move in a new direction? The jury’s still out. But Austin’s staunchest transit advocates are watching … and hoping.

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Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

In recent weeks, within Austin’s transit advocacy community, rumors have been circulating of some kind of “package” of major transit projects possibly being compiled, perhaps for the November 2018 election cycle. While details are murky – concocted behind the veil of a resuscitated Project Connect and the tightly shuttered enclaves of the high-level leadership consortium of Capital Metro, City of Austin, plus some Travis County and state officials – it is whispered that such a plan might include a “Guadalupe-Lamar project” as well as an expansion of the MetroRail regional railway, a highway-routed bus “rapid transit” (BRT) line, and other possible projects.

A “Guadalupe-Lamar project” sounds great – a starter light rail transit (LRT) line in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor would represent the crucial linchpin of an eventual LRT (urban rail) network for the entire metro area. But there’s no guarantee that LRT is the “project” behind the dark curtain. Whatever concrete details of these wisps of plans may exist seem to be closely guarded secrets. For the G-L corridor, officials, planners, and their consultants may be envisioning urban rail, or they might just as plausibly be concocting more investment in the pathetic MetroRapid faux-“BRT” operation … or a cable-gondola line … or some other scheme.

The problem is that this top-level methodology of secrecy is now the routine modus operandi of most of Austin’s major public transport planning. And this, in an era of so-called “transparency”.

In fact, a lot of this methodology comes close to the definition of a cabal: “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ….” While it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a bona fide cabal – and it certainly isn’t motivated by evil intent – today’s transport planning process nevertheless feels enough like a behind-the-scenes cabal to merit this unfortunate comparison. (And that’s why we’ve dubbed it “cabal-style”.)

Local planning wasn’t always this Machiavellian. Back in the early days of the Austin Transportation Study (predecessor of CAMPO) and Capital Metro, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, planning was upfront; plans were on the table for public review, discussion, and debate. Community activists were intimately involved in the planning process; public participation was vigorous and vibrant. Meetings of advisory bodies such as Capital Metro’s Citizens Advisory Committee and Transitway Corridor Analysis Project Advisory Committee were frequent and well-attended, often by participants in the dozens. Plan proposals were not only clearly on view, but were shaped and fine-tuned by direct community input.

That process has, in recent years, been squelched. Interactive public meetings have been replaced by “open houses” and “workshops” where actual full discussion among all participants is excluded. Austin Rail Now has analyzed and criticized this deleterious process in considerable detail – see the numerous articles collected in the category Public involvement process.

Bona fide, free-speaking, freely attended, full public meetings are a critical component of democratic process. That’s how ideas are raised, shaped, tweaked, finalized – via discussion within groups of participants with a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, viewpoints, insights.

You can be sure that these occult, mysterious transit plans we’ve been referring to have been hatched by vigorous interactive meetings … not of the public, but of a relatively tiny, cabal-like huddle of officials, planners, and consultants sheltered from public view and involvement. A carefully assembled community body like the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee is allowed an occasional glimpse of what’s already been decided elsewhere … and then, only every few months or so. Back in the days of the directly involved and intensely active public advisory committees, meetings were held several times a month (especially in the final stages of formulating plans).

Even through this dark, distorted process, perhaps acceptable plans will emerge that will be embraced by the Austin community. But don’t hold your breath. The absence of direct, intimate, ongoing, adequately engaged, fully democratic public participation seriously increases the risk of flawed outcomes and political problems.

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Capital Metro — Back to 1986?

30 November 2016
Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed BRT line in I-35 in favor of LRT in 1989.

Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin (as warned by local community transit activists) led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed I-35 BRT line in favor of LRT in 1989. (Photo: Flickr.)

Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.

That would appear to be the case, according to reports from participants in a meeting where representatives of Project Connect (unearthed from its grave by Capital Metro) presented the agency’s “priorities” for regional transit system planning.

The presentation, organized on the evening of November 15th by the Friends of Hyde Park neighborhood association, was reported by Austin community transit activist Mike Dahmus in Twitter messages and a posting on his blog. Mike’s report, with confirmation from other participants, makes it clear that some implementation of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a “foregone conclusion”. But this is a revival of a faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.

This proposal for “BRT” (i.e., express or limited-stop buses) on I-35 is basically a reversion to Capital Metro’s planning as of about 1986, at the start of the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP). This early study effectively began with the premise that “BRT” was probably the desirable “rapid transit” mode for the region (although light rail was included in the TCAP study as a kind of whipping-boy target to be rejected). Just as with the agency’s current scheme, the 1980s-era “BRT” plans envisioned buses running in I-35. Feeding more buses into the I-35 alignment was to be the function of a northwestern branch; this was proposed as alternatives of running buses either in U.S. 183 or in a dedicated busway to be constructed along the new railway alignment (now the Red Line) that had been acquired by the City of Austin from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Unfortunately for that “BRT” strategy, a number of savvy light rail transit (LRT) advocates were members of the TCAP Technical Group of Capital Metro’s then-very-active Citizens Advisory Committee, which met regularly (every two to three weeks or so) during the study process. Particularly knowledgeable about technical issues relating to the comparative evaluation of transit modes (e.g. issues from ridership forecasting to infrastructural, operational, and cost issues), community activist Dave Dobbs and public transportation planner Lyndon Henry were effective in responding to various claims and factual errors forthcoming from both Capital Metro staff members and consultants. The end result was a recommendation from the Technical Group for the Capital Metro board to approve LRT as the preferred mode, and subsequently (in 1989) the board did designate LRT as the agency’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the central corridor.

What persuaded Capital Metro’s top decisionmakers to opt for LRT over the BRT plan? The most salient factors included:

• Evidence (plus intuition) that rail transit has greater public attractiveness and generates higher ridership than comparative bus systems …

• Unease over the difficulties and high investment cost of inserting BRT into a freeway alignment, and questions over the value per dollar spent compared with LRT …

• Perception and evidence that LRT tended to generate greater adjacent real estate and economic development than BRT …

• Overall perceptions that economic development plus total cost-effectiveness suggested a higher return on investment (ROI) for LRT …

• Concern over the possibility of bus overcrowding and even congestion on Central Area streets with the high-capacity BRT alternative …

• Conclusion that LRT would yield better compatibility (and fewer environmental impacts) with Austin’s urban environment than BRT.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication that any of these issues are being considered in the current Project Connect 2.0 study process, or emerging as a focus of attention on the part of today’s Capital Metro board.

And Capital Metro seems headed to repeat other past mistakes as well. Apparently, as related by Mike Dahmus’s blog report, the resuscitated “Project Connect 2.0” study process is also committing the same kinds of absurd, critical methodological errors that so thoroughly damaged the original “Project Connect 1.0” attempt to fashion a “High-Capacity Transit” (HCT) proposal in 2013. (See «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan».)

For example, Mike reports:

The framework for discussion has been set in a way that heavily disfavors Guadalupe/Lamar rail. There are three ‘segments’ of travel they put up on the screen; as well as a slide which shows “previous HCT studies”. Guadalupe/Lamar is not in the top slide (most important service), nor is it listed in “previous HCT studies”. It is instead consigned to the second group, called “connector corridors”, implying that Capital Metro has already decided that it cannot be the spine of the transit network.

This kind of planning contortion – dissecting and severing major travel corridors into irrelevant “segments” – is exactly the kind of methodological butchery that in 2013 provided Project Connect 1.0 a rationale to dismiss the city’s most significant central urban travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar. Mike goes on to correctly explain that

… when the majority of your passengers on your theoretical ‘spine’ have to transfer, YOU HAVE A BAD SPINE, DAWG. Spines need to go down the middle and get to the good stuff. And especially on the ‘work end’ of the trip (not the ‘home end’): if a large percentage of your riders have to transfer off the spine, you’ve chosen poorly.

His blog post also quotes Houston urban planner and transit advocate Christof Spieler’s observation on the need to zero in on a city’s most important corridor:

For Houston, the strategy meant building a light rail through the city’s primary urban corridor, where lots of people already live and work.

Cities often shy away from that approach because it’s more expensive and disruptive to lay tracks in such populated locations. But the factors that make it difficult to build light rail there were exactly the things that made it the right place to have light rail.

Unfortunately, these key lessons seem lost on Capital Metro and its reanimated concoction Project Connect 2.0. Currently, the agency appears to be on course to once again disparage, downplay, and bypass the most important urban travel corridor in the city: Guadalupe-Lamar. ■

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Capital Metro: Let’s have 2 1/2 more years of analysis paralysis

27 February 2016
Title slide of Capital Metro's CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

Title slide of Capital Metro’s CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

After months of preparation, organizing, bidding, and selection, with lots of fanfare Capital Metro at last launched its $3 million, 30-month (2.5-years) Central Corridor Comprehensive Transit Analysis (CCCTA) study. In a Jan. 25th news release, Capital Metro announced that its board of directors had selected engineering firm AECOM as the lead consultant to conduct the Central Corridor analysis.

To the uninitiated, inexperienced, and uninformed, this latest study might seem some kind of step forward for Austin’s transit development. After all, its elements include impressive-sounding goals like “An in-depth study of a variety of transportation modes and their potential for creating improved transit options within the corridor”, “A multimodal transportation plan that improves the feasibility of transit in the Central Corridor while effectively maximizing connections with regional routes in surrounding communities”, and “A realistic cost analysis for building, operating and maintaining the proposed sustainable and connected transit system”.


Capital Metro's planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.

Capital Metro’s planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.


Analysis Paralysis gold medal

But, among grassroots public transportation advocates in Austin, it’s hard to find a transit supporter who’s enthusiastic about this study. The reason: All of these issues have already been exhaustively studied, and plans prepared and re-prepared, over and over and over and over again, for more than two decades. For Austin transit supporters, we’ve “been there, done that” — multiple times. It’s just one more repetitive “re-study of the re-studies of the re-studies ….”

To get a breathtaking idea of the time, resources, energy, and money Austin has sunk into planning for “high-capacity” public transport, just check out our February 2015 chronicle of studies and re-studies of light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps». This central travel corridor’s high level of traffic, population and employment density, and crucial position accessing and connecting vital activity centers (like UT, the Capitol Complex, and downtown) with key established neighborhoods and extended commercial activity along the route have made it the focus of planning for rail transit for over three decades.

In terms of public transit, Austin clearly is a top contender for the Analysis Paralysis gold medal. And Capital Metro’s latest CCCTA study, as it’s currently designed, surely represents Exhibit A toward this dubious award. The confusion, misdirection, conflicting intentions, and lack of purpose underlying this “paralysis” were discussed in our March 2015 article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».

Meanwhile, as meaningful public transport planning continues to languish, the Austin metro area is experiencing a veritable blitz of intensive highway development and construction, including at least three new tollways, massive projects on I-35, and assorted projects throughout the urban area. As the saying goes, “Roads get built, transit gets studied“.

Project Connect back from the dead?

But confusion and a continuation of “analysis paralysis” aren’t the only problems with the CCCTA study. As currently configured, the study seems little more than a rehash of Project Connect’s ill-fated “High-Capacity Transit Study” which elicited such intense community outrage beginning in 2013, the precursor to its ultimate resounding rejection by voters in November 2014. Indeed, the CCCTA project seems the first major effort to resuscitate Project Connect since its 2014 debacle.

Among the worst weaknesses of the Project Connect disinterment is the revival of the seriously flawed methodology of the earlier “analysis”. This includes ignoring actual, existing travel corridors — such as the pre-eminent Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and instead mislabeling huge chunks and sectors of the city as “corridors”. (The methodology further subdivided the “Central Corridor” into “subcorridor” mini-sectors.) Thus, according to Capital Metro, per the CCCTA study, “The Central Corridor is defined as an area bordered on the south by Ben White (US-290), on the east by the Capital Metro’s Red Line, on the north by RM 2222/Koenig Lane, and on the west by MoPac Expressway, and includes downtown Austin.”

Not only is that vast glob of central Austin not a corridor, but (as in the 2013 activity) this approach slices and truncates actual travel corridors, particularly Guadalupe-Lamar, rather than analyzing them in terms of their suitability and potential for actually solving mobility problems with public transport (particularly urban rail). We analyzed the problems with this in our November 2013 article «Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!»


Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Methodology of Project Connect study in 2013 labeled huge chunk of central city as a “corridor”, but severed actual intact travel corridors into meaningless pieces. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Community skepticism about Capital Metro’s “corridor” methodology in the CCCTA study was illustrated as early as last September by Jace Deloney, a co-founder of the influential AURA group (involved with urban and transportation issues) and former chairman of the City’s Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee:

It’s very important that we advocate against using the previous subcorridor definitions for any future high capacity transit planning project. In my opinion, these subcorridor definitions were deliberately designed to end up with a Red River alignment recommendation.

Re-direct the CCCTA study!

Besides the exhaustive “saga” of studies of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor detailed in the ARN article cited and linked above, Austin Rail Now and other community stakeholders have presented LRT alternative alignment and design proposals that provide more than enough basis for quickly reaching a decision for an urban rail starter line. The most recent proposals are described in several ARN articles:

Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar (June 2015)

Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar (November 2015)

Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (January 2016)

So far, in the absence of any sense of direction toward a major urban rail investment, Austin’s top political and civic leadership is vulnerable to pressure by highway interests (such as TxDOT) for municipal general obligation bond funding for a heavy local investment in a massive I-35 overhaul and other huge highway projects. To this, a major rail transit starter line investment might be counter-proposed as a far more effective and desirable alternative for city bond funding.

It would definitely seem time to end Austin’s decades of “analysis paralysis” and move forward quickly toward finalizing an urban rail plan for public approval — a strategy that could be expedited by re-directing Capital Metro’s CCCTA study. There is certainly sufficient planning and design preparatory work already in place to provide the voting public a basis on which to make a decision for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. The AECOM consultant team (widely respected in the public transportation industry, with experience with LRT in Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere) could simply update and tweak the major engineering studies that have already been done (e.g., those in 1993 and 2000) for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Austin Rail Now proposal is one of several possible configurations already suggested for light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


This would likely require a major intervention by Austin City Council members to request Capital Metro to negotiate with its consultant team for a modification of the CCCTA work plan — eliminating the proposed 30-month “slow track” study, and re-directing the project into planning, design, and engineering of LRT for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as suggested above. This would have the aim of placing a measure on the ballot for bond funding (to be kept in escrow till further planning and Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study tasks are completed). Adequate cost estimates are already on hand for such a ballot measure.

According to Surinder Marwah, the former Capital Metro Senior Planner who secured federal funding for the MetroRapid bus project, this can be “a reasonable plan if the elected officials, business leaders and major stakeholders can come to an agreement” for the general Guadalupe-Lamar alignment corridor. “AECOM can update the preliminary cost estimates quickly and perform fatal flaw analysis for the alignment corridor within few months — by mid-late August to get this into [a] November ballot measure.”

Capital Metro’s currently contrived CCCTA study seems little more than a “holding pattern” reflecting the indecisiveness and lack of will of key public officials in regard to public transport policy. Re-directing this study as proposed above would at long last move Austin’s rail public transport development into a widely supported action phase and head it expeditiously toward the mobility quantum leap Austinites have so long been denied. ■

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Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion

29 March 2015
Graphic: Rich's Management Blog

Graphic: Rich’s Management Blog

The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning over the past five months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Especially when you consider this in context.

For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future. As our recent article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» describes, the logical starting point for an initial LRT route has been the central city’s heaviest-traveled central corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Year after year, planning proceeded in some way for LRT. Even after 2003, while official planning was distracted and mis-directed toward potential routes more to the east of the central core city, the need for rail transit was still proclaimed. Austin had to have rail to maintain an adequate level of mobility into the future.

Beginning about 2006, an original streetcar “connector” rail transit concept emerged that gradually morphed into more ambitious “urban rail” — a full LRT system. An official blue-ribbon committee of civic leaders, the Transit Working Group (TWG), was hand-picked (first by State Sen. Kirk Watson, then by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell) to guide rail planning. Extensive planning documents were finalized for a route scheme linking the Core Area with Seaholm, East Riverside, the East Campus, and Mueller — a rather deranged route, in our view, but rail nonetheless. The City then launched a full-fledged NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (required for federal funding), with a series of “open houses” and other public events.

Activities of the TWG continued to heat up, primarily focused on planning for the urban rail line to Mueller. Route alternatives, cost issues, funding issues, organizational and management arrangements, and all kinds of associated issues were discussed exhaustively. A new consortium of public agencies, called Project Connect, was formed, mainly to coordinate rail planning and to produce a massive regional plan criss-crossed with proposed rail lines. Remember all this?

By 2013, the official establishment apparently felt urban rail needed the scrutiny of a special High-Capacity Transit study. So a special Project Connect team, headed by consultant Kyle Keahey, was formed, and virtually the second half of 2013 was consumed with “studying” (translation: justifying) and finalizing the need, size, and shape of an officially preferred urban rail plan. Mueller was sidelined, replaced by a desperate quest for a rail line from East Riverside to the former Highland Mall site. “Gotta get to Mueller! Mueller! Mueller!” became “Gotta get to Highland! Highland! Highland!”


Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.

Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.


As this blog, and a sizable segment of local transit advocates, insisted, the plan was conceived for the wrong reasons and fundamentally flawed. But for about the last two months of 2013, and ten months of 2014, the City administration, plus Capital Metro, plus the prevailing faction of local civic leaders, all insisted over and over that rail was absolutely, positively essential (although it had to be the peculiar Highland-Riverside plan officials had concocted). An expensive ad campaign, much of it financed from federal funds channeled through Capital Metro, bombarded the public via the Internet and virtually all major media outlets — reiterating the message that traffic congestion was a growing threat to the metro area and rail (the official plan of course) was the essential remedy. Mayor Leffingwell’s familiar aphorism was suddenly appearing and being heard everywhere: “Rail or Fail!

And then, on Nov. 4th, it all hit a wall, as voters said No to the puzzling, nonsensical, controversial, and fabulously expensive Project Connect plan that had been offered.

And all of a sudden, rail was erased, scrubbed, from official discourse. Despite all the years, decades, of documentation of the need for a rail transit system for the city, the official vision of transit became refocused on “becoming the best bus system we can be”; after years of explanations that reliance on further highway development wasn’t a realistic solution for preserving the city’s mobility, regional highway and tollway development has suddenly received a new surge of energy in official policy.

Meanwhile, rail transit planning has basically vanished from official planning. It’s just gone “Poof”. As David Orr has reported in his recent commentary «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning», all reference to urban rail has been expunged from the 2040 Transportation Plan of CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), and replaced by line items for “bus rapid transit” (i.e., expansion of the MetroRapid limited-stop bus service).

Affirmed, until last November, as an absolutely essential component of Austin’s future mobility, light rail has now disappeared from public discourse, from the mainstream media, from the lips of politicians and civic leaders. Is it some kind of collective amnesia? Have the local planning and decisionmaking establishment all been struck with a strange disability, like the global mass blindness in Day of the Triffids? Or is the obliteration of rail a calculated excision, like the Soviet Stalin regime’s air-brushing elimination of political undesirables from photos, or the “Photoshopping” of group photos by some misguided religious media to “disappear” women?


Evaporation of Austin's light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.

Evaporation of Austin’s light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.


One wonders whether any of these Austin-area leaders and planners have given a thought as to how this plays in public perceptions of their own credibility and integrity. Were all the assurances and explanations of the need for urban rail to maintain Austin’s future mobility and vitality just deceptive hype, a marketing ploy for some kind of alternative agenda?

Maybe, but we believe the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.


According data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report.

According to data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. (Click to enlarge.)


And we have a strong suspicion that a preponderant number of local planners and officials actually continue to agree with this perspective. If so, they need to realize there’s a lot of community support for urban rail — from voters on both sides of last year’s debate — and they need to start stepping forward. They need to heed their sense of responsibility, find their mojo, or whatever it takes, to take the lead to get LRT planning back on track.

The groundwork, in terms of preliminary planning, is already there — and, in recent articles and other public information, Austin Rail Now along with other mass transit advocates have expanded on it.

Austin is waiting. We’re wondering who’ll take the first step. ■


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland’s light rail trains (in dedicated lanes) share 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall with buses as well as cars — a potential transit design model for Austin? Photo: L. Henry.